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KARL R. DE MESA chats with the English director about mythical pasts, shooting in the Japanese countryside and the making of his Eigasai 2019 headliner, Samurai Marathon.

Photos Courtesy of the GAGA Film Corporation

English director Bernard Rose has had an eclectic and diverse film resume so far. From 1992’s cult horror classic Candyman, 1994’s historical drama Immortal Beloved, 2010’s Welsh crime caper Mr. Nice, to 2015’s gritty remake of Frankenstein.

This year, Rose helmed Samurai Marathon, a movie in the vein of the jidaigeki genre (period film) about Japan’s first marathon set in the Edo period of 1855 when the country was still closed to the world. Against this backdrop, the infamous “black ships” led by US Commodore Matthew Perry, arrive and petition the Emperor for trade. The Americans have brought with them gifts of whiskey and handguns, and with the latter, the Imperial Court will be able to silence its enemies easily. 

The decision of the central Edo government to negotiate trade with the Americans doesn’t sit well with some of his feudal lords, like the Daimyo of the mountain territory of Annaka, who is terrified that the US ships are just a prelude to invasion.

To allay his nightmares, Lord Annaka decides that his soldiers, retainers, and all samurai must participate in a marathon through 36 kilometers of rugged terrain. But a ninja spy who’s been secretly living in Annaka, tasked to report to the Emperor, thinks the marathon is the first stirrings of an uprising and so mistakenly sends the wrong message to the capital, requesting for assassins. 

Based on Dobashi Akihiro’s novel and starring Japanese superstars Nana Komatsu (Bakuman) and

Takeru Satoh (Rurouni Kenshin), Samurai Marathon is full of the expected conventions of the samurai genre with exciting sword battles, intimately affecting and complex relationships, and courtly intrigue, plus a few hundred men sprinting through the gorgeous Japanese countryside set to Philip Glass’s rousing score. Beyond running swordsmen, it’s got a story that’s frenetically paced, with plenty of twists, and a healthy dose of quite refreshing humor. 

Since Samurai Marathon is the banner movie for Eigasai, the 22nd Japanese Film Festival of 2019, we got on the phone with director Bernard Rose to talk about one of the most exciting Japanese-language films of the year.  

An English director on a Japanese-language movie that also happens to be a lavish jidaigeki (period film). How did you get this project and what were your thoughts when it was offered to you?

The short answer is Jeremy Thomas [British film producer] asked me to do it. He’s been looking for a different way to do this kind of film and he asked if I wanted to come and do it. So I went to Japan and met with Toshiaki Nakazawa [producer], we got along and we developed a script, back and forth, for about a year and got into it.

Jeremy has been doing films in Asia since back in 1979. Since then he’s made The Last Emperor with Bertolucci and, more recently, he was making films with Tokiyashi Nakazawa, who’s produced Samurai Marathon and with Takashi Miike on 13 Assassins.   

So it didn’t happen overnight but after I spent some time there, I thought this would really be fun to do.

What challenges did you foresee making it?

I knew it was always going to be a challenge but the rewards always seemed really great. The samurai genre and the jidaigeki Edo period of Japan is almost that kind of mythical time. I think all cultures all have this mythical past that they look back on and have this idealized version of their culture. In Japan that’s the samurai period, in America it’s the Wild West, and in Britain and Europe it’s the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table era. It’s this Golden Age that they romanticize, an age where people were more chivalrous or more honorable. Good is fighting evil.

Then there’s always the revisionist vision that undermines it. So, what’s interesting to me about the jidaigeki is that a lot of them have been remade as Westerns. See, initially, Kurosawa took inspiration from the West so there’s a kind of circular influence between East and West that’s going on there, which doesn’t happen in many other genres.

Sounds like you really enjoyed making this movie. 

The landscape of Japan is just so beautiful but also there’s such a high level of filmmaking expertise. Like Takashi Sasaki, the production designer, and Emi Wada with the costumes who is just a genius, really; she has great eye for detail and a great feeling for expressing the story through the costumes. 

Filming in Japan was such a unique experience and I think actually that going to a foreign country and making a movie is one of the best things you can do.

When you collaborated on the script, what things stood out to you and were you conscious of keeping some things as is, discarding others, reworking some parts?

The book had already been adapted by Hiroshi Sato [screenwriter]—which I enjoyed very much and found a lot of good, comedic stuff in it. One of the things I was very keen to preserve on the film was a sense of comedy. I think that it’s strange that with any film set before the 1900, people seem to feel that nobody had a sense of humor back then. But that’s unlikely, I think.

I also like the earlier films of Kurosawa, the ones that are lighter like Yojimbo (1961) and The Hidden Fortress (1958). There’s a kind of comedic sensibility in those films too, that I wanted to preserve and that was also in Sato’s script [for Samurai Marathon] very much, which I then re-wrote. The main thing that added to it was about the Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu) and her triangle love affair with Tsujimura and Jinnai, the characters played by Mirai Moriyama and Takeru Satoh.

Keeping Princess Yuki as a willful and very strong female presence has benefitted the movie, for sure. 

I wanted to have a strong female protagonist, so, that was important to me. To some degree she was also influenced by the Princess Yuki character in The Hidden Fortress [by Kurosawa], who of course is also the template for Princess Leia [in Star Wars]. Yes, she totally is [based on Kurosawa’s Princess Yuki].

Despite the twists and the very layered ensemble, I think you mostly remain true to form in the samurai genre. Were any influences or particular references playing at the forefront?

I didn’t want it to feel like it was outside of the conventions but also I wanted to be a little playful with it too just to keep the humor and not make it too stiff.

Also I didn’t want the fighting to be too rigidly stylized. I wanted it to feel dangerous, that they were trying to kill each other rather than put on a display. I really wanted it to feel like they were trying to kill each other because the katana is a dangerous weapon and I wanted it to feel like people are at risk.  

Yes, the movie is about running but beyond that really, the fear is at the heart of it. Everything was spurred by their fear that the Americans were going to attack and colonize them. A very realistic fear I think in the 1850s. Then, there’s also the fear that they needed to change, something that’s always difficult for a people with a very rigid and established culture. It’s the terrifying thought of dealing with change, coming to grips with it, and coming together to surmount each of their fears.

And I’m glad the humor is very much in it, like keeping the bear scene.

The bear is actually in the original script. And I always liked the idea that they could be chased by a bear. Of course, Japan is full of bears up in the hills [Laughs]!

It’s still balanced by heavy gravitas in some parts like the Emperor’s enforcer is shooting other helpless samurai. Which is I think drives home the point of change, of “Hey this isn’t just a swordfight anymore, we have guns.” 

I really loved [that scene, too] where Hayabusa is just going around shooting other samurais. It was also slightly influenced by Yojimbo, where there’s that guy with the pistol, the one guy who has that Elvis Presley haircut.

I think the score by Philip Glass just enhances the big moments and the run through some very beautiful scenery.

Philip is an old friend of mine and it’s the third time I’ve worked with him. I did Candyman (1992) and Mr. Nice (2010) with him, so he and I have a pretty good shorthand for us to put things together. I really couldn’t imagine anybody else doing the movie soundtrack and, as usual he was really, really wonderful. What he did to score the landscape scenes was fantastic. He’s made for these kinds of movies. 

SAMURAI MARATHON is showing at the Eiagasai 2019, the 22nd Japanese Film Festival, which runs from July 3 to August 25, 2019. For detailed screening schedules and venues go to https://jfmo.org.ph/events-and-courses/japanese-film-festival-eigasai/. Or call the Japan Foundation, Manila (+632) 811-6155 to 58.

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